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The Nation

Now Americans Can Put a Personal Stamp on Their Mail

Under a test program, nearly any picture can, for $16.99, become a sheet of postage.

September 19, 2004|Ted Anthony | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — America's first postage stamps appeared in 1847 -- rough, unperforated squares of ink and paper that depicted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The portraits in miniature oozed gravitas and, in their quiet way, nudged along a growing national identity.

Over the next 157 years, hundreds of American luminaries, landscapes and milestones have appeared inside the small canvas that we stick onto the envelope's corner: Abraham Lincoln. Daniel Webster. The Statue of Liberty. The moon missions. Pocahontas. Cape Hatteras. Scott Joplin. Herman Melville. Your dog.

Your dog?

Yep. Your dog. And your new baby, your grandfather, your car, your floral arrangement, your Chevy truck, even your bathroom sink if that's what floats your postal boat.

"Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps," the rap group Public Enemy sang in 1989, but those days are disappearing. Thanks to a new test program by a firm called Stamps.com, any picture uploaded from your computer -- well, almost any picture -- can, for $16.99, become a sheet of made-to-order postage stamps.

In the first three weeks since the test program debuted Aug. 10, the company took orders for 40,000 sheets -- 800,000 new stamps.

"It's created a new way for people to express themselves," says Stamps.com's chief executive, Ken McBride.

That's 21st century modern marketing principle No. 1: In today's buyer-driven, niche-marketed-to-the-nth-degree world, customization reigns. And technology is giving consumers new relationships with their products by effectively putting the means of production into their hands.

Don't like the Hallmark expressions on the shelf? Print your own card -- with custom photos and sentiments -- on Shutterfly.com. Is your license plate dull? Order one with endangered wolves, snowcapped mountains or a vanity slogan -- IB2BAD or maybe YME GOD.

And just as reality TV can make your next-door neighbor a star, technology can make your (fill in the blank) into a stamp.

But as the cult of individuality steers the marketplace, questions arise: Is there a role for national consciousness? Should we be customizing every piece of our world?

Postage was long part of the fabric of national identity in a far-flung land sewing itself together. If you mailed a letter in 1903 from Ogunquit, Maine, and used a brown 4-cent stamp that depicted the early "electric car," odds are your recipient in Herculaneum, Mo., could buy the same stamp at his post office. National themes were emphasized, national values propounded. Today, tens of thousands of suggestions for stamps are winnowed to 35 or 40 yearly.

Official stamp subjects have gotten more lively in recent years; they include Woody Guthrie, Honus Wagner and Nancy and Sluggo. But turning the stamp into "Your Photo Here," while exciting, isn't the same cultural expression.

"It's saying, 'Postage is about me' rather than some national notion," says Roy Rosenzweig, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

"Part of the point of stamps was to tell us who we are," Rosenzweig says. Photo stamps, though, represent "a symbol of some wider set of changes that are already out there -- people identifying with smaller groups, with marketplaces instead of countries."

The logistics raise some provocative issues too.

What of stamp collectors? Would self-generated postage create new rarities daily -- or would it be as valueless as paper from an ink-jet printer?

"We don't expect these ever to become collectible because there are infinite varieties and infinite options," says Allison Gallaway, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum.

Can you put your own portrait of Washington or Lincoln -- or Kerry or Bush -- on a stamp? Nope, McBride says. What about a photo of a real stamp, say a really valuable one? Another no. Anything "objectionable" is forbidden (all submissions are vetted by two Stamps.com employees, each presumably with the general knowledge of a "Jeopardy" contestant).

What about living celebrities instead of dead presidents? Could there be a J.Lo stamp? Use of public figures' images and copyrighted stuff isn't kosher, so that would happen only if Jennifer Lopez wanted to order one -- "or," McBride adds, "Jennifer Lopez's agent."

The Smoking Gun, a provocative website that posts all kinds of original criminal complaints, documents and mug shots from odd and celebrated cases, decided to see what it could get through the screening process.

Among the results posted on its site: postage depicting Slobodan Milosevic, executed spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the Gap dress that Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton made famous.

"This was just an exercise to point out that the only people truly worthy of stamps are statesmen (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin), civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall) and cartoon characters (Wile E. Coyote, Jiminy Cricket)," The Smoking Gun deadpanned.

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